May 7, 2017
For her teaching Betsy read the following story by John Gleason.
It happened years ago, but the incident sticks in mind and memory. Perhaps I can make you see why.
It was October 1938. I had just graduated from Northwestern University and wanted to see something of the world before settling into a career. With $350 saved from a summer job—quite a lot in those days—I was heading for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, places that seemed romantic to me.
In New York I boarded a rusty, old coal-burning freighter. At first there seemed to be just three passengers besides myself: a bright young civil engineer from Michigan, a worried-looking old man in a white linen suit, and a stately, charming woman who turned out to be Mrs Charles Colmore, wife of the Episcopal Bishop of Puerto Rico, who was returning there after a visit to relatives in the United States.
We made friends quickly, the way you do on a sea voyage. Then, two days out of New York, a young woman with dull blonde hair appeared on deck for the first time. She was in her early twenties, much too thin. She looked so pale and wan that we instantly pitied her. She seemed a bit wary of us male passengers, but she accepted Mrs Colmore's invitation for tea in her cabin.
"It's a strange story," the bishop's wife told us later. "She comes from a little town in Pennsylvania and she's on her way to the West Indies to look for her husband. He evidently left home several months ago after a violent quarrel with the girl's mother over his drinking and his inability to find a job and support his wife properly. The girl finally heard a rumor that her husband had gone to the West Indies. She still loves him, so she left her old dragon of a mother, and now she's on her way to find Billy—that's her husband's name: Billy Simpson."
"You mean," I said "she's going to leave the ship when we get to San Juan and start looking? Why, that's crazy! There are hundreds of islands in the Caribbean; maybe thousands."
"I told her that," the bishop's wife said, "but it didn't seem to make any impression. She just says she'll find him. How, I don't know. But she seems absolutely sure of it."
"It would take a miracle," the old man said, thin and intense in his white tropic suit and brown wool cap.
"It would take a whole hatful of miracles," I muttered.
"Does she have any friends where she's going?" asked the young engineer. "Does she have any money?"
"No friends," said the bishop's wife. "And almost no money. Ten dollars, I think she said. Not even enough to get her back to New York."
When we heard this, the rest of us dug into our pockets and raised twenty-five dollars to give to this strange waif of a girl.
"This will help you find a place to stay when we get to San Juan," the bishop's wife said when she presented the money in front of all of us. "And I'm sure our church there will help find enough for your return passage home."
The girl murmured her thanks. Then she said, "But I'm not going home. I'm going to find my husband."
"Where? How?" asked the old man.
The girl shrugged and smiled a little. She had the oddest smile—sad, fateful, dreamlike. "Prayers," she said. "My prayers. A few years ago, I asked God to send me someone to love, and He did, and I married him. Now I'm asking God to help me find my husband again. That's all. Just asking. And I'm sure He will."
The engineer turned away. "Not rational," he murmured, and I nodded. He was a tall, friendly fellow on his way to become a plantation overseer on Santo Domingo. He was a couple of years older than I, and it made me feel like a man of the world to agree with him. The old man said nothing. The bishop's wife looked thoughtful. We didn't discuss the matter again.
Time passed, trancelike, the way it does on shipboard. We docked in San Juan early one morning. I was scheduled to catch another boat that afternoon for St Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and so had a few hours to kill. The others were going to look for an inexpensive hotel where the girl could stay while she figured out her next move, whatever that might be. The engineer and the old man needed a place to stay, too. The bishop's wife had delayed her own trip to Ponce, where the bishop was, in order to give some reassurance to the girl. "I've got to see her settled somewhere," she said to me privately. "And then I'll ask some people at the church to keep an eye on her. She has this unshakable faith, and I've done some praying myself, but... ."
"But she needs that hatful of miracles, doesn't she?" I said.
Mrs Colmore smiled. "A great big hat," she said. "A God-sized one, perhaps."
In the smothering heat of midday we walked all over the old city of San Juan, finding the cheap hotels—all run-down establishments infested with fleas and bedbugs. Finally the bishop's wife suggested that we get on a bus for the little neighboring town of San Terce. She thought accommodations might be more attractive and more available there.
So we clambered onto a bus for San Terce, but all the hotels we found in this pleasanter suburb were too expensive. Finally, exhausted under the hot sun, the bishop's wife, the old man, and the girl sat down on a sidewalk bench. The young engineer and I continued the search and, amazingly, we found a pleasant, clean, and inexpensive hotel within a block.
We tried to register for the group, but the clerk insisted in broken English that each person register individually. So I went and brought the others into the lobby, where they lined up before the registration book. When it was the girl's turn to sign, she picked up the pen, glanced at the page, dropped the pen— and fainted.
The clerk dashed for some water. The engineer and I put the girl on a couch, and the bishop's wife bathed her forehead while the old man patted her hand. After drinking some water, she came to slowly.
"Heat too much for you?" I asked sympathetically.
She shook her head. "No .. . Billy." "Billy?"
"He's in the book," the girl whispered.
We jumped up to take a look. There, scrawled after a date two days before, we read: "Billy Simpson."
"Billy Simpson! What room is he in?" I asked the clerk. I couldn't believe it.
"Simpson?" the clerk said. "Oh, he got a job. He come back after work. Not here now."
"This can't be," the old man said almost angrily when the clerk's description of Billy Simpson seemed to fit the girl's. "She must have had some idea that he was here!"
Still lying on the couch, the girl didn't hear, but the bishop's wife looked at us. "No, I'm sure she didn't," she said. "Otherwise she would have come directly to this hotel on her own, wouldn't she?"
Nobody could answer that. It was obvious that there could be no final answer until Billy Simpson came back from work—by which time I was supposed to be on the boat that sailed overnight to the Virgin Islands.
Now, I know that in a good story the narrator does not remove himself from the scene just when the climactic episode is coming up. But this is the way it all happened. I guess real life doesn't always write the script the way a good playwright would.
Anyway, I had to go. The engineer shook my hand and wished me well. The bishop's wife gave me a letter of introduction to the Episcopal minister on St Thomas, a Reverend Edwards. The old man said he would come and see me off.
The boat for St Thomas was belching smoke, more of a ferry than a ship. As we neared the gangway, the old man spoke. "The real reason I wanted to come along was to ask you something. Do you think that prayer really led that girl to her husband?"
"I don't know," I replied uneasily. "There's always coincidence. But this is certainly a big coincidence."
He took my arm. "I wonder if prayer could help me?" he said. "I just wanted to ask you. I don't know much about it."
"Neither do I," I said. "Why don't you ask the bishop's wife? She prayed for the girl, you know."
"Do you think I should? I've been a bit afraid to."
"Sure," I said. "Ask her. And if I hear of any jobs in the Virgin Islands, I'll write you at the hotel."
"Thanks," he said. "Have a good trip." He waved to me from the dock after I was aboard.
When I arrived, Reverend Edwards invited me to stay with him, charging only ten dollars a week for room and board. Settled in, I spent my time sightseeing, chatting with natives at the docks, writing, relaxing, learning all I could about the islands. Evenings I often visited with Reverend Edwards after dinner. One night I told him about the girl on the boat and the missing husband and the prayers, and probably my tone clearly indicated my doubts about it all.
The old clergyman said: "Don't ever be afraid to believe, John. You're too young to have a closed mind."
With time, the girl and Billy Simpson almost slipped from memory. But one day I mentioned the incident to two new friends of mine, deaconesses who lived next door to the church.
"Why," said one of them, "that Mr Simpson sounds like a Mr Simpson we had here at the church clinic. He came from Antigua with a very bad case of the DTs. We practically had to chain him to a bed."
"And then," said the other, "one day he suddenly became alert and insisted on getting up. Our Danish doctor said he'd better stay with us for a time, but Mr Simpson was adamant. He said he had to get to San Juan to see someone. When we asked who, he said he didn't know. He just had to get to San Juan. That night he caught a small power boat going to Puerto Rico. We gave him twenty dollars to get him there and maybe enough for a room. That's the last we heard of him. Now this?"
We compared dates, and this "Mr Simpson" would have landed in Puerto Rico three days before my group arrived in San Juan-from New York. He could have reached that hotel two days before we had, as the register showed.
I had to find out. I wrote to the bishop's wife, gave her my news, and asked for hers. In two weeks, her answer came: "Yes, it was the right Billy Simpson. His reunion with his wife was one of the most touching things I've ever seen. Now, there have to be several events to consider, miracles possibly. One, Mr Simpson's sudden cure from alcoholism in St Thomas, which he confirms; two, his strange compulsion to get to San Juan, which he couldn't understand himself at the time; three, the guidance that led him to that particular hotel; four, his finding a good job within twenty-four hours, after not being able to get a job for months; five, the guidance that took our group to that hotel, a hotel which you yourself found. For me, these events add up to a hatful of miracles that can be explained in only one word: prayer. The Simpsons are living happily in San Juan now. Not long ago they gave me fifty dollars to use for charity, and so I am enclosing twenty dollars for your friends who helped Mr Simpson while he was ill."
I sat with Mrs Colmore's letter in my lap for a long time.
A week later, I received a letter from the old man. He had gone to Ponce with the bishop's wife, found a good job, joined the church, and become very happy in it. He wrote: "When we were all at the hotel that day, Mrs Colmore said that maybe there was a lesson in the experience we had just shared. I believe there was. For me, the lesson was that some people instinctively know the power of prayer, but others have to learn it."
I couldn't argue with that.
These days, my mind is no longer so young, it is no longer closed, and I am no longer afraid to believe.